Why Self-Editing Is Killing Your Writing

If you’ve been writing without the help of an editor, you’re not giving your words a fighting chance. The results are likely a piece of writing that isn’t as coherent, powerful, and brilliant as it possibly could be.

I’m not saying this from the perspective of an editor. I’m saying it from the perspective of a writer.

Hemingway posing for a dust jacket photo by Lloyd Arnold for the first edition of “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” at the Sun Valley Lodge, Idaho, 1939. Wikimedia Commons.
(Even Ernest Hemingway had an editor

Submitting self-edited work to your teacher can hurt your grades, submitting a self-edited proposal to your client can hurt your chances of winning a bid, and publishing a self-edited manuscript can hurt your chances of developing a loyal readership.

Self-editing is killing your writing.

In this post, I’ll discuss the problems with self-editing and explain the role of an editor. Also, in the event that you must self-edit for whatever reason, I’ll teach you how to implement some easy steps to make your self-editing more effective.

Don’t let your next great idea be ruined due to a lack of proper editing.

Why It’s Hard to Edit Your Own Work

Even though I’m a professional editor myself, I never, ever publish anything without having another editor review my work. While I have a sharp eye for comma misuse and run-on sentences in other people’s writing, I very commonly overlook these things in my own writing.

As the content manager for an online editing company, I can’t afford to make a mistake in my writing.  My readers would certainly love to find any error I leave behind. A professional editor with a penchant for comma splices—how funny is that? That’s why I always have another editor at Kibin review every single blog post that I write.

I used to think it strange that I was blind to my own writing and unable to effectively self-edit until I discovered some fascinating research proving that this problem is extremely common.

In a study published in the Journal of Research and Reading, researchers sought to determine whether familiarity with a text leads to more proofreading errors. They found that the more familiar you are with a text, the more likely you are to miss obvious mistakes. (Tweet this)

What kind of text are you most familiar with in the whole wide world? Shakespeare? Your tattered copy of Lord of the Rings? No…

Your own writing, of course!

These words were born and developed in your brain and escaped from your fingers to your word processor. Of course you’re intimately familiar with your own writing.

That familiarity breeds complacency. It makes you, the writer, blind to your own writing. This means it’s nearly impossible to effectively self-edit.

Isn’t it a relief to know that? I, for one, am happy to discover that I’m perfectly normal… well, at least insofar as my difficulty with self-editing goes.

Now, please, stop teasing me about my comma splices!

Novice Writers Aren’t the Only Ones Who Need Editors

I don’t care what level of writer you are. You need an editor. You might think that there may come a day when you won’t need an editor anymore because you’ll just be that darned good.

The truth is that every writer needs an editor. Even great writers need editors. Writing coach and author Devin Burglund says it well: “A great writer can’t also be a great editor of his or her own material.”

Why not?

Writing and editing are two very different parts of written communication. Writers write; editors edit.

The two processes complement each other, but they’re totally different. The function of the editor is to bring clarity to a writer’s ideas. The function of the writer is to capture and record those ideas in the first place.

The editor’s job is to take the writer’s ideas and polish them to perfection so that the reader can fully understand the message.

The practice of editing can be first attributed to early day scribes who copied down the important works of kings, politicians, religious figures, and authors in order to preserve them. The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer, for example, is no longer the original text of Chaucer; rather, the current version represents the evolution of iterations undertaken by editor after editor, beginning with a version compiled by a scribe after Chaucer’s death.

Perhaps the early Elamites might have had more success with their attempt at the written word if they had thought to have editors polish their work. As it stands, that oldest form of undeciphered writing remained undecipherable for thousands of years because readers couldn’t make any sense of the many errors and confusing conventions.

Economic tablet with numeric signs. Proto-Elamite script in clay, Susa, Uruk period (3200 BC to 2700 BC).
(Creative Commons)

Editors help translate your ideas so that your readers can understand them. They see your vision with objectivity, while you as the creator are mired in subjectivity.

The more attached you are to your writing, the more subjective you’ll be. The more subjective you are, the more you’ll need an editor to whip your writing into objective shape—a shape that readers can appreciate.

Writing is unlike other art forms. It’s not like an oil painting, for example. It’s okay if your audience doesn’t understand your painting—that’s part of the fun of visual arts.

(Creative Commons)

It’s not really okay, however, if your reader doesn’t understand your writing. That’s where an editor comes to the rescue.

An effective editor will see your unique voice in your writing and work from the background to bring your best voice to the foreground. In this way, the editor is the unnamed and unsung hero of all good writing. Editors are behind the works of famous authors such as J.K. Rowling and Leo Tolstoy. They are the backbone of impressive graduate student articles, informative blog posts, and entertaining television scripts.

All that said, self-editing does have its place in the world, so let me talk a little bit about that now.

Tips for Self-Editing

Even though engaging the services of a professional editor is highly recommended for any important writing project, there will be times when you don’t have the luxury of an objective eye. Other times, you’ll just want to give your work a thorough self-edit before sending it along to an editor.

If, for whatever reason, you must submit a bit of unedited writing to someone, here are five easy self-editing tips.

1. Write one day; edit another day. By putting some space between the writing and editing processes, you can greatly improve your ability to find and fix glaring errors and confusing sentences.

Separating writing from editing gives you two advantages: first, it allows you to write with abandon, without paying attention to your inner editor. This usually leads to better and more original ideas. Second, it gives you the distance and space you need to help with the problem of being too familiar with your writing to effectively edit it.

The longer you spend writing your work, the longer you’ll need to wait before you can edit. For a short project like a blog post, waiting a few hours or a day can give you the space you need. For a lengthier project like a novel or thesis, you’ll need a few days or even weeks of space to give yourself the objective distance you need to edit.

2. Make a checklist of your most common mistakes and hunt them down. If you often mix up there, their, and they’re or if you have issues with commas, create a list of these common mistakes and make a concerted effort to find them in your writing.

If you’re unsure of your common mistakes, you might want to start by using a proofreading checklist such as this one.

3. Run your document through an automated grammar checker. Grammarly offers an automated grammar checker that can help you correct some basic writing problems. BUT BE CAREFUL! This will only catch common mistakes.

While automated checkers are helpful if you struggle with the constant misuse of the words its and it’s, the editor machines haven’t outsmarted the human proofreaders yet (and we expect they never will).

Image courtesy The Incredible Vanishing Paperweight

Dean Evans, founder of the Good Content Company, undertook a personal experiment to see how automated proofreaders stack up against human editors. He pitted four different automated grammar checkers head to head against his wife’s expert editing skills.

The results of his experiment showed that when it comes to editing, humans win hands down.

He writes, “What we take away from this five-way match up is that you can’t beat the eye of a human proofreader. … There’s more to proofreading than hunting for typos and making sure you haven’t written ‘your’ when the sentence structure calls for ‘you’re’.”

Automated proofreaders can’t check for issues such as relevance of content, organization and overall structure, or voice and tone.

4. Read your work aloud. I actually use this method all the time, whether I’m editing other people’s papers or my own. It’s a practice that drives my family crazy.

Image by thegoodfilms.com (Creative Commons)

I find it’s far easier to catch errors, especially those related to sentence structure and utter nonsense, when I read the work aloud.

Reading a piece aloud helps you to better hear the flow of the words and the sentences, and it can help you to capture a desirable tone and voice in your writing. A post by expert copywriter James Chartrand discusses the many benefits of reading your work aloud.

5. Try peer editing. If you can’t afford to hire a professional editor, you may benefit from peer editing. This simply means that you recruit an objective peer to read your work and to point out any flaws. These flaws can be as simple as punctuation errors or as complex as out-of-place words and paragraphs or confusing ideas.

In a study, researchers found that students who used peer editors were more successful at finding language rule errors in texts than students who tried to self-edit. They wrote, “One can conclude that peer-editing has allowed students to achieve together what each could not accomplish alone.”

Final Thoughts on Editing

One of the biggest benefits of submitting your work to an editor is that doing so allows you to relax and just be the writer. You can let your ideas flow without censure. You can build your argument, create an original story, or express your business idea without your inner editor yelling “Stop! What are you doing?” at every comma misuse or clunky turn of phrase.

By allowing yourself to just be a writer, you free up your mind to let the words flow onto the page.

Then when you have some semblance of a first draft, feel free to self-edit it a few times (using my suggestions above) before submitting it to a peer or an editor to help you polish your writing.

Good luck!

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